Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

As a young mother pushing a stroller around New York City, I was always overwhelmed by the kindness of folks who would leap to help me get it up the subway stairs. Once, commuting alone, I went to return the favor, and the mother unexpectedly handed me her young son to carry while she hefted her stroller. As I breathed in the scent of this curly-headed little dumpling, I marveled at the trust that connected two strangers in that moment.

The stairs stretching up ahead of us right now are dark and daunting. This month the world convenes in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt for the 27th annual UN climate conference in recognition that “the world is nowhere near on track toward a 1.5°C goal.” The current emissions pledges of countries around the world would, if achieved, bring our planet to 2.5 degrees of average warming—a level the IPCC says would be ‘catastrophic’ for humans and Earth systems. This is distressing news, especially for children. Children are already experiencing the effects of the climate crisis on their health, development, education, and mental well-being. And in almost every conceivable future, those impacts will intensify.

But what if our shared impulse to protect the young and vulnerable could move us toward more concerted action on climate change?

A recent survey suggests it could.

The Aspen Institute’s This Is Planet Ed and Capita commissioned a survey from the Siena College Research Institute to better understand people’s perceptions of climate change, particularly when thinking about children.

The survey grouped respondents by their degree of concern over climate. Approximately two-thirds of respondents fell into a “very concerned” group, while one-third were less concerned.

The less concerned group doubted the potential severity of climate change and the strength of the evidence. They were more likely to be men and to be white.

Across those interviewed, 74% agreed that they have a moral obligation to make the world a better place by addressing climate change not only for their children and grandchildren but for all children to come. Of those with children in the household, even more, 80%, agreed with this.

And crucially, even among this one-third of respondents who were “least concerned” about climate change, 46% still agreed that they have a moral obligation to address climate change for their children, grandchildren, and generations to come.

These results suggest there is a subgroup of Americans—perhaps as many as 1 in 6—who are not yet very concerned about climate. They may even be doubtful that humans are causing climate change. But they are still willing to recognize, not just a preference, but something as strong as a moral obligation to address climate change—at least, when children are in the mix.

While building the report, Think of the Children: The Young and Future Generations Drive US Climate Concern, I spoke to some of the parents and caregivers surveyed.

Lisa lives in Central Virginia and has five grandchildren. She says she’s politically middle-of-the-road and “moderately concerned” about climate change. She feels, “It’s gotten to be more of a political thing.”

But she does see the weather getting more unpredictable and worries about her grandkids not getting enough time outside. “Who wants to spend their lives inside air conditioning constantly?” she said. “My concern is that people just won’t be able to enjoy nature like they should be able to.”

Lisa was adamantly in favor of teaching climate change to children in school, without overly politicizing the topic.

“There are standards of learning about the water cycle, weather…you could easily fit climate into these science topics,” she said. “‘If you put too much carbon dioxide, this is what you’re going to get.’ It’s not a complicated subject.”

Our results suggest a path to successful climate communication based on a goal that Americans across the political spectrum share: the well-being of children.